The Popol Vuh: Its Creation Story

As I was saying, I've been studying the "Mayan Bible," The Popol Vuh, with a new friend of mine here in Grenada, Spain. He's a wise man, a cave-dweller, artist and street musician. I've already written about him here and here. I've summarized the introduction to the Popol Vuh here. This current posting summarizes what the book calls "The First Narration" of the Mayan classic. I hope it communicates the book's Spirit.   


Useless Humans Made of Mud, Straw, and Greed

In a hushed ancient Reality 
Without Time, Space, or Movement
But only sea and sky,
The Great Creators and Shapers,
The Trinity of
Tupeu, Gucumatz, and Huracan,
Wonderfully 
Manifested their 
Unbounded energy 
Sourced from divine meditation (45).

The Gods gave birth
To oceans, rivers, and streams
And to the earth itself
Sowing it 
With food from heaven
To nourish
Every creature to come.

All of it
Made the deities exceedingly happy
(And their council of Elders too, 47).
For theirs was an act 
Of holy evolution
Enabling their creatures
“To perfect themselves.”
Yes!
All mortals, they said,
Are called to perfection (48).

And so,
Lions, Tigers, and deer
Serpents, snakes, and vipers
Filled the earth (48).
Birds swarmed in the skies
Chanting wordless hymns 
Of praise and thanks
To the Creators and Shapers (49).

But sadly,
None of the new creatures
Found voice 
For conscious 
Expressions of thanks.

This saddened the Gods
Who therefore
Condemned the animals
To feed one another
With their own
Mute corpses (49).

So, the Great Ones changed course
Deciding to make 
A more perceptive 
And vocal creature
Capable of offering them
Conscious gratitude and praise.

First they made 
An Earth Creature of mud.
But it turned out to be
Weak, blind, immobile,
And impotent (50).
Worse still: It could not
Praise or thank
Grandmother Moon (Xmucane)
Or Grandfather Sun (Xpiyacoc 52).

Next, they created men of straw.
Yes, they could reproduce.
But their children
Were no more than dolls.
They lacked heart, soul, 
Understanding and consciousness. 
Empty and useless,
They wandered the earth
In disgrace (53). 

So, in fury Gods
Destroyed the earth
In a Great Flood
Of water and sticky resin.
The strawmen were
Slaughtered, crushed,
Eaten, decapitated
And thrown about
Like sacks of wheat
By all manner of animals.
Even dogs 
And household pots and pans
Got into the act (53-54).

But the evil Vacub Caqix 
Somehow survived it all.
Extraordinarily proud
And exceedingly rich,
His eyes could see nothing but silver.
He claimed to be sun and moon
Even before either was seen (55).

Vacub Caqix’s pride
Displeased the Gods
Who sent the heroes
Hun Ahpu and Ixbalanque
To teach the hard lesson
That Greatness is not measured
By wealth and possessions (57).

The two demigods
Inflicted Vacub with sickness
And a great toothache (60).
They knocked him
From the tree 
Whose fruit gave him life.
But not before
He disarmed (literally!) Hun Ahpu
And ordered Mrs. Vacub
To prepare the severed limb
For a cannibal supper (59-60). 

Indeed, Vacub Caquix
Was resilient. 
He begot 
Two powerful sons
Zipacna and Cabracan
Both movers and shakers
Who claimed 
They had made 
And could destroy
The earth itself.

As a result,
The Gods and their Elder Counselors
Decreed that 
Vacub’s Evil Trinity
Father and sons
Must die (60).

Disguising themselves
As dentist-healers
Hun Ahpu and Ixbalanque
Persuaded a reluctant Vacub
To let them pull 
His aching tooth
(Even though Vacub’s 
Teeth and silver-blinded eyes
Originated his power 62).

The demigods replaced
The pulled teeth
With dentures 
Made of white corn.
Defanged,
And unable to eat,
Vacub the Proud
Was vanquished!

His eldest son, Zipacna 
Was another story.
His great stupid strength
Caused everyone
To fear him.
Though he naively
Trusted others
And tried to help (63),
Everyone (including the Gods)
Wanted him dead.
Once 400 young bucks
Tricked him
Into digging his own grave.
But after three days
In the tomb,
He rose in fury
To kill them all.

But Hun Ahpu and Ixbalanque
Killed the famished monster
By making him pursue
A dinner of giant fake crab
Up a rocky peak
Until the mountain
Collapsed upon him
For good.

And then there was Cabracan
Vacub’s younger son,
The proud mountain destroyer (68).
Pretending to be wandering hunters,
Hun Ahpu and Ixbalanque
Sought the monster’s help
In reaching a mountaintop
Whose peak (they said)
Touched the sun. 
As they traveled up the slopes,
The demigods shot birds
With their blowguns (69).
At nightfall,
They seduced a hungry Cabracan
To eat a poisoned pigeon.
That’s how he died.

These are only samples
Of the great works
Of Hun Ahpu and Ixbalanque (70).

Their lesson:
Greatness is not a matter of wealth,
Or of physical strength,
Or destructive power.
It is a matter of living
Before the Gods
In praise and thanksgiving.

Introduction to The Mayan Popol Vuh

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post or two (e.g., here and here) I’ve made a friend here in Spain who lives in a cave and makes his living playing guitar on the street. Simon is 60 years old and manages to live on the 10 Euros or so that his music affords each day.

At my invitation, I spend at least an hour or so with him weekly in conversation — usually on Wednesdays. The point is to better my grasp of Spanish. In the process, I’m learning about the underclass in the Granada area, and about simple living among those who have chosen to drop out of the rat race. I’m learning so much.

In any case, my friend is very thoughtful. He and I are studying together the Mayan “Bible,” the Popol Vuh. It contains that culture’s myths about the origin of the universe. For ecologists such as Joanna Macy, the book points us in the direction of the “deep ecology” that all of us must travel to save the planet. Simon is definitely moving that way.

For those who might be interested, my next number of posts will share my thoughts on the readings my friend and I are discussing. For instance, what follows is my summary of the book’s 40 page introduction (complete with page references to the volume pictured above). See what you think.

The Popol Vuh

The Popol Vuh is the Bible of the Mayan people (31). Unlike some other indigenous peoples, the Mayans were particularly sensitive ecologically speaking (11).

Accordingly, and unlike the West’s mechanical view, the Popol Vuh represents a work of what Joanna Macy calls “deep ecology.” It imagines an organic, living universe inhabited by conscious animals who communicate with human beings in ongoing dialog (9-11, 17).

Moreover, according to the Mayan Bible, everything in the universe is part of a whole – of a “holonarchy” (10). It contains no distinction between human beings and nature. Rather, everything exists within a network of relationships (11). Each human embodies a connection with particular elements of created reality, e.g., with mud, wood, or corn. (17). Besides this, every human has a twin spirit (or nahual) within the animal kingdom. Examples of nahuals (totems?) include the swordfish, jaguar, quetzal, serpent, owl, etc.  (17, 21).

At its beginning, the Popol Vuh recounts the origins of the universe as created by Great Spirits called “Creators” and “Shapers.” They represent different aspects of Nature – viz., Gaholom [the infinite Divine Empty Space within which creation takes place] Tzacol [the Divine Will incarnate in nature), Bitol (the Divine Energy found within every creature], and Alom [the Divine Mystery — the incomprehensible, and ineffable within created reality] (39-40).

Creation results from an interplay between those Creators and Shapers. Gaia (a complex entity comprising soil, oceans, atmosphere, and all living beings) is the result (21). Creation is divided into four parts, north, south, east, and west, represented by the colors white, yellow, red, and blue (14).

According to the Mayans, human beings are complex creatures. They have somehow evolved from simians (21). The masculine embodiment, Hunahpu and Ixbalanque are at the same time heroes and abusers of their powers. They often are depicted as mistreating animals. Sometimes they even practice human sacrifice – though it’s not clear to what extent such inclusions in the Popol Vuh were late additions influenced by colonialism, feudalism, and their accompanying bellicosity (28).

Meanwhile, their mother, Xquic, is kind to the animals and always enjoys success in her relationship with them (24). However, it is the Great Abuela, Xmucane, (not a masculine God) who turns out to be the Heart of the Earth (25). She embodies the ethic of care for the other who always has value and manifests Spirit – even the humble ant (26). 

The moral of the Popol Vuh is “Treat all creatures – all of creation – with loving care or one day disaster will strike” (20). The entire non-human world will rise to mutilate and destroy its abusers (21).

Second Report from Spain

Flamenco Dancer in Elaborate Cave Home

As you may have noted from previous postings, Peggy and I have joined our daughter, Maggie, her husband, Kerry, and their five children (Eva 14, Oscar 11, Orlando 10, Markandeya 7, and Sebastian 3) in Granada, Spain. Peggy and I have been here just over two months. (Please forgive any repetitions here. But I want to tell the story from the beginning.)

It’s all been quite fascinating.

To begin with, the two of us came across from New York to Southampton on the Queen Mary 2.

Neither of us had ever traveled that way – seven nights at sea. And it was unforgettable. It included all you’d expect, fabulous meals, first class entertainment, live music that never stopped, dancing, lectures, films, and long hours in silence on deck chairs contemplating the Divine Presence of ocean and sky. It was all magnificent.

However, upon arriving at our destination, I came down with a severe case of COVID-19. So, I started out on the wrong foot. That called for 10 days or so of isolation and recovery.

Nonetheless, since arriving in Granada, the QB2 magic has continued. We’re in the city’s Albaycin neighborhood just above the famous 11th century Alhambra – a Moorish fortified city that draws tourists from all over the world. From the roof patio of our artistically decorated three-bedroom apartment you can see it all.

We can hear its uniqueness too, since we’re located right next to a Mesquita, a local mosque. When we’re on our patio we can see the muezzin and hear him sing the Salat calling his fellow religionists to prayer five times each day. Peggy and I treat it as a summons addressed to us as well.

Our barrio is also in the heart of what remains of Spain’s Gitano (Gypsy) culture with its famous Flamenco music and dance. On one high holiday here, Peggy and I stole a front row seat at a serious Flamenco performance in the square adjacent to our apartment. It was beautiful. Another night our whole family crowd attended a performance at a cave-turned-into-a-house in the nearby Sacromonte neighborhood. This area is covered with caves where people live. (But more about that later.)

Since our arrival, we’ve done some tourism too. For instance, we spent an unforgettable four days walking the famous Camino Santiago de Compostela. I tried to make it the spiritual experience reflecting its original intention (and rediscovered the rosary in the process).

It was also fun watching my grandchildren enjoying the same experience at a different level – all anxious to collect stamps recording their progress in their pilgrimage “passports.” For my part, arthritic knees confined my own advance to maybe 25 miles of walking over the 3 days of actual pilgrimage. My passport contains only a few stamps.

From there, we all traveled to Bilbao. We stayed a couple of nights there in a classy hotel. Visited the Guggenheim and a Fine Arts museum. Then it was on to Madrid and the Prado where, we enjoyed a guided tour pitched to the grandchildren’s interests and understandings. Of course, we barely scratched the museum’s surface.

Then a couple of weekends ago, Peggy and I traveled to Europe’s southernmost geographical point. We spent two nights in a beautifully simple hotel in Tarifa near the point where the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean flow into each other. We took in a newly excavated Roman City (Baelo Claudia) near Bolonia and Cadiz. There were also the remains of Moorish forts and palaces to see in Tarifa itself. All quite interesting.

As for my exclusively personal interests, I’ve been intent on recovering my understanding of the Spanish language and a greater fluency in expressing myself. So, I took “classes” for 10 days at a language school just down the street from us. The sessions consisted in conversations with 4 different professors. During the one-on-one periods, we mostly talked about Spain, its history and culture.

I was especially interested in the years during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco (1939-1975). I wanted to know how Spain made the transition from Franco’s fascism to its present situation where it’s governed by a coalition of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) and a rechristened Communist Party called Podemos (“Yes We Can!”). Of course, there remains a lot for me to learn there.

Since finishing my “classes,” my continued interest in improving my language and cultural understanding has moved away from the language school to the street. I’ve made friends with a very interesting street musician from Chile. He’s 60 years old and is a kindred spirit. He lives in a cave neighborhood across the valley from us and high above our apartment’s location. There are about 40 people like him living there. All live in caves; none pay rent. Many are ex-military who have been alienated from “normalcy” by their experiences in the army.

I’ve mentioned Simon in a previous posting. But I’ve been learning more about him. He knows I’ve been a writing teacher and wants my help in authoring his autobiography. He also wants us to study the Mayan Popol Vuh together. Just this morning he invited me to visit his cave community. I intend doing that tomorrow. I’ll soon tell you whatever I learn there.